Recap: Willett Distilling Visits Bobby Q's for Evening of Bourbon & BBQ

James Gribbon

Fire is your friend, and on a cool evening at the end of September, so is smoke. Many a hefty stave of Connecticut oak lent its flavor to platters of pork ribs, sausage and smokey burnt ends of brisket at our latest CTBites Invites event. Blue flame lit hand rolled cigars, courtesy of Connecticut Cigar Company, and the gathered crowd on the rooftop bar at Bobby Q's in Westport was warmed by fire of a different kind, via Willett Distilling

We try to lovingly craft our dinner pairings for Invites events, and few things blend as seamlessly as fall weather, bourbon, and BBQ. The former can excite and sharpen the senses, while the latter two coddle and insulate - an ideal coalescence of need and satisfaction to contemplate through a wreath of fine tobacco smoke under a starry sky.

Our venue for the evening was the rooftop bar at Bobby Q's in Westport, partially enclosed, but fully strung with lights which lent a glow to the night air. A warming glow of a different kind was delivered more thematically via ace mixologist Jeff Marron of Saugatuck Grain & Grape, who assembled and poured barrel-aged Manhattan cocktails on demand, the whiskey having spent at least a year in the very cask from which it was poured at the end of the bar.  

This drink was the first stop of the evening for many of the 70 people in attendance, but the party's flow changed course as the Bobby Q's crew stepped onto the rooftop with platters and trays piled with what owner Bob LeRose calls "BBQ Antipasto." House smoked sausages were the centerpiece, and were surrounded by jars of whole grain mustard, pickles, and thick wedges of pepper jack, cheddar, and Swiss cheese. Other trays held house made chips, guacamole, salsa, or crackers standing ready to be spread with another of the southeast's specialties, pimento cheese.

One of the evening's featured guests was Drew Kulsveen, fifth generation master distiller of the Willett Distilling Company, now known as Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. Drew had brought six KBC bourbons and a rye whiskey for sampling over the course of the night, and took the small stage to talk about the Willett family's history in the distillation business (a detailed description of which can be found here), and the process of making whiskey. Kulsveen noted the singular composition of the local water supply at the distillery's home in Bardstown, Kentucky, the source which gave its name to one of the Willett whiskeys on hand that night, Rowan's Creek. Multiple requests were overheard for refills of Johnny Drum Private Stock, but my sense was that the Willett Pot Still Reserve bourbon and Willett Family Estate Bottled Rye were the crowd favorites.

Rest whiskey in a new oak cask, and you have the evening's Manhattan; char an oak barrel and it will help to produce world famous bourbon and Scotch; slowly burn that oak down while choice cuts of meat bask in its aerosolized goodness, and you have dinner. Try as one might, man cannot live on brown liquor alone, and the main course was served family style as attendees quickly took their seats. 

Slow-smoked pulled pork was piled on trays at every table, inspiring a bit of cutlery-based swordplay as diners vied for the bits with the most chewy, savory bark. The meat itself was flavorful and unctuous, and the available sauces from Bobby Q's were neither needed nor utilized, as far I could see. Bobby's St. Louis pork ribs are smoked over a hickory fire and also devoid of sauce, having been thickly coated with a dry rub which joined with the smoke to create the ideal pink ring of flavor penetrating deep into each bite. Rounding out the selection were burnt ends of Angus brisket. The nature of these beautifully charred bites means they're necessarily scare, and there's no guarantee the restaurant will have them every time you show up, but somehow the crew put together more than enough for the sizable crowd in attendance.

The atmosphere was a cross between a family cookout and a fall tailgate, and the selection became a little more varied with the arrival of sides of Bobby Q's BBQ pit beans, cole slaw, smashed potatoes and corn bread. 

The air was perfumed with smoke of a different kind throughout the night, courtesy of the Connecticut Cigar Company. The CCC is a cigar maker, retailer and lounge located in downtown Stamford and featuring Cuban-seed tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic, as well as tobacco blends from the DR, Nicaragua and Honduras. CCC employs several Dominican cigar rollers, and a line quickly formed in front of Max, our roller for the event. The faces in the queue were hungry and anticipatory as those at any table, and many a maduro was later seen to smolder away inside a toothy grin. 

The CCC's involvement in this Invites event was especially timely, given that they've opened their leather trimmed C3 Lounge for Sunday NFL games on a BYOB basis, with full memberships and special event cigar catering available as well. 

The warmth of summer is universally loved, but there is a certain extra degree of satisfaction to be had when properly insulated against a chilly night. A full belly, a stiff drink, and good cigar shared with good company can do a lot to keep the cold at bay.